The stripped-down war drama “The Wall” opens with American snipers Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena on duty in Iraq circa 2007, staking out a patch of desert eerily littered with the victims of an unseen enemy shooter. It’s a hellaciously hot, tedious assignment, and after 20 hours of surveilling corpses, Matthews (Cena) concludes that the other marksman is long gone. Just to be sure, though, he clambers down from his camouflaged perch for a closer look.
Big mistake. One that leaves wounded Isaac (Taylor-Johnson) pinned behind a pile of crumbling masonry for the duration.
Still, before you scoff about what a display of foolishness this is, consider: It takes these soldiers nearly one full day to go crazy from boredom. Yet, as director Doug Liman (“The Bourne Identity”) correctly recognizes, the audience probably wouldn’t get through even the film’s fleeting 90 minutes without some flashy narrative diversion — a viewing opportunity to stretch our legs, so to speak. Liman eventually gives us one, and it’s definitely wild — but it also seems at odds with the immersively grimy, bloody, authentic atmosphere that the movie works so hard to establish.
Of course your feeling about the actors could make all of this irrelevant, given how much time we spend embedded with them. (Imagine Sandra Bullock’s “Gravity” plight, only plopped down in the dust.) UK-bred Taylor-Johnson delivers a variation on the all-in, piercing-eyed intensity he’s brought to “Nocturnal Animals” and “Kick-Ass,” so expect his twangy, resourceful sharpshooter to hold similar interest or vexation.
Meanwhile, although it might seem likelier to catch Cena encoring in “The Marine 5” than pulling legit duty for Liman, he goes about his business in capably straightforward style. (Come to think of it, Liman has shown a certain affinity for eclecticism over the years, with credits ranging from “Swingers” to the Plame affair chronicle “Fair Game.”) Cena both looks the part and acts it, and gets to spout the movie’s best bit of amusingly macho, off-color grousing about the heat.
British character actor Laith Nakli (“24: Legacy”) also warrants mention for his voice-over finesse as the Americans’ relentless adversary, whose sometimes bluntly scripted head games lay out the film’s provocative themes.
“The war is over,” he says coolly. “You’re still here. Why?”
Watching Taylor-Johnson’s character engage the enemy this way is intriguing, but also a bit removed from the realism the film is after. Can you say catch-22?
Directed by Doug Liman. Written by Dwain Worrell. Starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, John Cena. At Boston Common, suburbs. 90 minutes. R (war violence, language throughout).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.